| Jul 31, 2012
This blog post was guest-written by Terry C. Muck.
As we move inexorably toward another polarizing presidential election, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the effects of such polarization. We are a divided country, filled with cultures at war with other cultures and within themselves. Not just Republicans and Democrats, but rich-poor, urban-rural, black-white, progressives-conservatives, and many more. What is the endgame of such chronic conflict?
There was a time when we could make the case that conflict, especially conflict of ideas, was a good and necessary thing. We do not agree on everything. Talking about our disagreements produces better effects than letting them fester into hate. So conflict, managed conflict, helps create societies that function well.
I believe there is still truth in such an argument, but am also becoming increasingly convinced that something is going on today that makes it moot. The public and private conflicts we see happening today do not eventuate in agreements, or even agreements to disagree, but in commitments to more conflict. Conflict has ceased being a means to an end, and has become an end in itself. We fight one another not to achieve peace or freedom or unity or other laudable ends. We fight one another in the expectation that we will keep on fighting.
What kind of a culture does this chronic conflict create? Aside from the obvious answer that it will lead to more of the same, what does chronic conflict lead toward for people who see what is going on and want to stop it? Are we doomed to participate, or is there a way out?
We have always had conflicts of one sort or another, of course, and we have always had “ways out.” I grew up in the sixties and my generation opted out by living on the streets of San Francisco, or forming utopian communities, or starting house churches—all in the name of dropping out of institutions we saw as part of the problem.
In other eras, people dropped out of unjust economic systems by becoming “free-riders” or by creating “black markets” for proscribed goods or cheaper prices. In order to avoid restrictive political parties, the idea of a “third party” is often tried (and usually found wanting). Usually these efforts fail in themselves, but create the conditions that bring about reform in the unjust political, economic, or social structures they seek to replace.
What is worrying about our current divisions, however, is a pervasive sense of hopelessness that such reforms have any chance of working—that our divisions can be overcome, or at least coped with, and that our larger society can be made productive again. One of the downsides of globalization and computers is that “dropping out” of society and working in the margins is almost impossible. With “big brother” watching there is almost no place to run, no place to hide. Hopeless.
Hopelessness usually breeds fantasies, and we have our share of those. Jimmy Buffet sings of pirates and Willie Nelson sings of cowboys, idealizing cultures that have dropped out and are free. Survivalists take to the woods and try to live off the grid: The system cannot be fixed; let’s wait until it fails, and then rise from the ashes. Instead of putting our money under the mattress, we stash it in off-shore back accounts. These are indeed fantasies and either do not get enacted or fail entirely.
What to do? I am convinced that the church has an important role to play in helping us through this particular dark night. The church realizes that this is not ultimately a problem of politics or economics or social concern, even though it usually takes those forms. At root it is a spiritual problem, exacerbated by our theological tendency to ignore the ultimately transcendent nature of our faith, or as the apostle Paul put it, “this world is not our home.” We tend to domesticate the remnant of transcendence that we still cling to, reducing our problems to material ones (politics, economics) or psychological ones (rooted in alienation or anomie).
"We are all one in Christ Jesus” may sound hopelessly pietistic, perhaps even escapist, but until we embrace the idea (or are embraced by it), all our other efforts will fail miserably. With it, however, we have the anchor that makes our efforts at political reform and social change, realistic and worth doing. It is the only story we have to tell. We are the only ones telling it.
Terry C. Muck is Interim Executive Director of the Louisville Institute